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Compelling Conversations for English Teachers, Tutors, and Advanced English Language Learners

  1. Teaching Matters: Do Our Students Need to Swim in English or Pass Grammar Tests?

    February 19, 2016 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth


    “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”

    ~C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), British novelist, theologian, and literary critic


    Last week we discussed English as a lingua franca (ELF), and how emphasis on a mutual understanding between conversation partners remains the goal. Earlier last month, we questioned what standards were reasonable for listening comprehension and speaking skills in the classroom. This post extends both those subjects.

    Do our ESL students need to “swim” in English? Or do they need to focus on avoiding  minor grammar mistakes? Should we encourage our students to speak as much English as possible? Or should we paralyze our students with exaggerated fears?

    Okay, these are rhetorical questions. Yet our ESL students – even advanced ESL students – don’t have to be perfect; they have to be understood. Alas, many – far too many – English classrooms still focus far more on grammar than authentic communication skills. Our students need to speak clear, comprehensible English.  Practical knowledge, not abstract theory, should be the focus of our English classes.  English remains a tool and just a vital tool for our students to reach their life goals in the United States, Canada, Australia, or the United Kingdom.

    Some Crucial Questions and Authentic Tasks

    Here is a short list of important questions for our English language learners.

    • Can they order food in a nice restaurant?
    • Can students fill in government forms?
    • Can they understand classified ads – online or in a paper?
    • Can they negotiate prices at a yard sale?
    • Do they understand a frontpage newspaper article?
    • Are ELLs able to confirm information?
    • Can adult students make clear recommendations?
    • Can ESL students share personal experiences?
    • Do students feel comfortable participating in classroom discussions?
    • Can they give a competent classroom presentation to fellow students – or at work?
    • Can they effectively interview for an appropriate job?
    • Do they feel comfortable at social events with native English speakers?
    • Can they, in short, swim in English?

    Students Speak English to Communicate

    If people want to communicate, meaning matters most. In other words, our students don’t need to speak perfect English with zero grammar errors anywhere outside of some English classrooms. Sometime English teachers, perhaps in a bid to help students ace their TOEFL scores, exaggerate grammar points that have little or no practical importance in daily life.  Let’s look at some common language errors that our students make, and move the discussion outside of our ESL classrooms.

    • Will the absence of articles (a, an, the) prevent a student from buying something?
    • Will a confusion of “much” and “many” prevent someone from receiving assistance?
    • How crucial is subject-verb agreement in daily conversations?

    Grammar fundamentalists hate hearing this simple truth. These errors are of limited significance for most adult English language learners outside the English classroom and white collar professions. Our students need to swim in English more than they need to pass grammar tests.

    Further,  the focus on accurate grammar and the expectation of “correct” English can cause excessive self-consciousness. In fact, I’ve worked with many English language learners who use severe, often extreme negative language to describe quite competent and sometimes strong presentations in adult education, community college, and university courses. This severe self-criticism places huge barriers on many English language learners. Worse, this perfectionism ironically limits their willingness to engage with the broader English speaking society. That’s why I often tell high intermediate and advanced students, who are often quite ambitious and hard on themselves, to “kill the perfectionist demon”. During the first few weeks of class, I usually emphasize this point with a simple “swim in English” pitch.

    “You don’t have to conquer English; you just have to swim in it everyday. Attentively listen to authentic English. Listen to podcasts and the radio. Create small conversations. Just ask a question. Read something in English everyday. Follow your interests in English. Allow yourself to be yourself in English. Jump into the language, and do your best. Start swimming in English. Our class is a safe place to expand your English skills, and learn by doing. I want to see significant, meaningful, and verifiable progress. I’m not interested in perfection. We want significant progress. Let’s get going and make some good mistakes together. Let’s swim in English, and see how far you can swim this semester.”

    English Students Have to Swim in English

    Our ESL students don’t have to be speak perfect English; they have to be understood in English by listeners. They have to be functional in English. They have to perform particular language tasks. They have to speak English inside and outside the class, and successfully convey their ideas.  Most English language learners need practice speaking, and positive social experiences in English. They need more conversation opportunities, and fewer grammar lessons. In short, our English students have to swim in English; they don’t have to swim across the English Channel.

    So why don’t we give our students what they need to survive – and often thrive – in more English classes? Let’s help them swim – and speak – in English.

    For more content on this subject, check out the Learning in School chapter from Compelling Conversations Japan!


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  2. Teaching Matters: What Are Reasonable Standards for Listening Comprehension and Speaking Skills for ESL Students?

    January 11, 2016 by Eric


    “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.”

    ~John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), 35th President of the U.S.


    Tough question! Context, as ever, matters.

    Are you going into a new semester of class looking for a clear, detailed chart to evaluate the speaking skills of your students? Check out the practical chart with ten categories for listening comprehension and speaking skills developed by the United States Office of Refugee Resettlement and revised by the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning. Where did I find it? As so often, I went to the Center for Applied Linguistics website. This wonderful resource has been around for years, but maintains its relevancy.

    Their chart seems quite sensible for most teaching situations with clear Student Performance Level (SPL) descriptors. The descriptors for listening comprehension and oral communication are intended to establish a consistent standard that government agencies, educational institutions, and non-profits can all use to share evaluations. Despite the bureaucratic title, the chart itself contains excellent descriptions that English teachers and testers can use for adult English language learners. After having been in several long faculty discussions over standards for oral skills, I appreciate the explicit standards combined with some flexibility.

    Developed specifically for adult refugees, it resembles other charts, yet includes more details and an explicit acknowledgment of economics. I like that awareness even if this factor can sometimes be misused to justify low standards in adult education programs. Our job as educators is to provide our students with the language skills to live fuller, more satisfying lives – in English – wherever they choose to live and work.

    Here it is in its entirety:

    Student Performance Level (SPL) Descriptors for Listening Comprehension and Oral Communication

    SPL General Language Ability Listening Comprehension Oral Communication

    0 = No ability whatsoever

    • No listening comprehension ability whatsoever
    • No speaking ability whatsoever

    1 = Functions minimally, if at all, in English. Can handle only very routine entry-level jobs that do not require oral communication, and in which all tasks can be easily demonstrated. A native speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers can rarely communicate with a person at this level except through gestures.

    • Understands only a few isolated words, and extremely simple learned phrases.
    • Vocabulary limited to a few isolated words. No control of grammar.

    2 = Functions in a very limited way in situations related to immediate needs. Can handle only routine entry-level jobs that do not require oral communication, and in which all tasks can be easily demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have great difficulty communicating with a person at this level.

    • Understands a limited number of very simple learned phrases, spoken slowly with frequent repetitions.
    • Expresses a limited number of immediate survival needs using very simple learned phrases.

    3 = Functions with some difficulty in situations related to immediate needs. Can handle routine entry-level jobs that involve only the most basic oral communication, and in which all tasks can be demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have great difficulty communicating with a person at this level.

    • Understands simple learned phrases, spoken slowly with frequent repetitions.
    • Expresses immediate survival needs using simple learned phrases.

    4 = Can satisfy basic survival needs and a few very routine social demands. Can handle entry-level jobs that involve some simple oral communication, but in which tasks can be easily demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have difficulty communicating with a person at this level.

    • Understands simple learned phrases easily, and some simple new phrases containing familiar vocabulary, spoken slowly with frequent repetitions.
    • Expresses basic survival needs including asking and responding to related questions, using both learned and a limited number of new phrases. Participates in basic conversations in a few very routine social situations. Speaks with hesitation and frequent pauses. Some control of basic grammar.

    5 = Can satisfy basic survival needs and some limited social demands. Can handle jobs and job training that involve following simple oral instructions but in which most tasks can also be demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have some difficulty communicating with a person at this level.

    • Understands learned phrases easily and short new phrases containing familiar vocabulary spoken slowly with repetition. Has limited ability to understand on the telephone.
    • Functions independently in most face-to-face basic survival situations but needs some help. Asks and responds to direct questions on familiar and some unfamiliar subjects. Still relies on learned phrases but also uses new phrases (i.e., speaks with some creativity) but with hesitation and pauses. Communicates on the phone to express a limited number of survival needs, but with some difficulty. Participates in basic conversations in a limited number of social situations. Can occasionally clarify general meaning.

    6 = Can satisfy most survival needs and limited social demands. Can handle jobs and job training that involve following simple oral and written instructions and diagrams. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speak¬ers will be able to communicate with a person at this level on familiar topics, but with difficulty and some effort.

    • Understands conversations containing some unfamiliar vocabulary on many every¬day subjects, with a need for repetition, rewording or slower speech. Has some ability to understand without face-to-face contact (e.g. on the telephone, TV).
    • Functions independently in most survival situations, but needs some help. Relies less on learned phrases; speaks with creativity, but with hesitation. Communicates on the phone on familiar subjects but with some difficulty. Participates with some confidence in social situations when addressed directly. Can sometimes clarify general meaning by rewording. Control of basic grammar evident, but inconsistent; may attempt to use more difficult grammar but with almost no control.

    7 = Can satisfy survival needs and routine work and social demands. Can handle work that involves following oral and simple written instructions in familiar and some unfamiliar situations. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speakers can generally communicate with a person at this level on familiar topics.

    • Understands conversations on most everyday subjects at normal speed when addressed directly; may need repetition, rewording, or slower speech. Understands routine work-related conversations. Increasing ability to understand without face-to-face contact (telephone, TV, radio). Has difficulty following conversation between native speakers.
    • Functions independently in survival and many social and work situations, but may need help occasion¬ally. Communicates on the phone on familiar subjects. Expands on basic ideas in conversation, but still speaks with hesitation while searching for appropriate vocabulary and grammar. Clarifies general meaning easily, and can sometimes convey exact meaning. Controls basic grammar, but not more difficult grammar.

    8 = Can participate effectively in social and familiar work situations. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speakers can communicate with a person at this level on almost all topics.

    • Understands general conversation and conversation on technical subjects in own field. Understands without face-to-face contact (telephone, TV, radio); may have difficulty following rapid or colloquial speech. Understands most conversations between native speakers; may miss details if speech is very rapid or colloquial or if subject is unfamiliar.
    • Participates effectively in practical and social conversation and in technical discussions in own field. Speaks fluently in both familiar and unfamiliar situations; can handle problem situations. Conveys and explains exact meaning of complex ideas. Good control of grammar.

    9 = Can participate fluently and accurately in practical, social, and work situations. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speakers can communicate easily with a person at this level.

    • Understands almost all speech in any context. Occasionally confused by highly colloquial or regional speech.
    • Approximates a native speaker’s fluency and ability to convey own ideas precisely, even in unfamiliar situations. Speaks without effort. Excellent control of grammar with no apparent patterns of weakness.

    10 = Ability equal to that of a native speaker of the same socioeconomic level.

    • Listening comprehension equal to that of a native speaker of the same socioeconomic level.
    • Speaking skill equal to that of a native speaker of the same socioeconomic level.


    These standards, of course, remain more relevant for adult educators, social workers, and workplace programs than more academic programs. English teachers should, however, create classroom activities where students can engage in extended conversations in English on a wide variety of topics. The higher levels of this chart (SPL 9-10) articulate an excellent standard for all English language learners, including academic English and Business English students. What standards will you adopt for your English classes?


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  3. Teaching Tips: Discussing Idioms in the Classroom

    December 23, 2015 by Eric

    “Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands, and goes to work.”

    ~Carl Sandberg (1878-1967), American poet and historian


    Idioms, or phrases that have their own meaning relative to their specific conjunction of words, are a unique feature of language that can be difficult for beginners to make sense of. Here are some common examples of American idioms:

    • You must be pulling my leg.
    • That’s the last time I stick my neck out for that guy.
    • She really jumped down my throat after I admitted I broke her tennis racket.
    • I’ve got to hand it to you; you did a terrific job on that presentation.
    • My uncle is hard of hearing so I practically shout when I talk to him.


    It is important to explain to your students the concept and uses of idioms, as slang, street talk, casual speech, etc. as well as the difference between a literal expression and a metaphoric or figurative expression. Ask your students to name places where they are likely to encounter idioms. Explain where idioms are not used, such as in formal writing.  If you have willing students, you can even act these expressions out. For example, you can ask, if I say I’m pulling your leg, am I actually pulling on your leg? Is this expression literal or figurative?

    Go through all of the idioms with similar questions: If your boss was angry and yelled at you, did she literally jump down your throat? While snakes can swallow whole animals, human beings cannot. These examples should illustrate for your students the crucial skills for defining and understanding idioms.

    Want to learn more? Check out the Studying English chapter from Compelling American Conversations, available here with additional commentary from the Teacher Edition!


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  4. Home vs. House: What does this mean?

    November 4, 2015 by Eric



    “No matter under what circumstances you leave it, home does not cease to be home. No matter how you lived there – well or poorly.”

    ~Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), Russian-American poet & Nobel Prize winner


    What’s the difference between a house and a home? English speakers clearly distinguish the two words. A house is simply the building where people live. It’s a physical structure. A house can be a stand-alone house, an apartment, or a condo.

    A home, however, is the place where people live, create their lives, and feel comfortable. Often, teenagers who are forced to move may feel that their new location is a house, but not a home. They may have no memories there or friends nearby.

    Does the expression “A house is not a home” in seem different when you understand this point?

    You can continue to explore what home means with your students through the following prompts. Have them use complete sentences to respond.


    1. When you were a child, did you live in a house or an apartment?

    2. What did you like about it? What did you dislike?

    3. Which was your favorite room? Why?

    4. What is your favorite childhood memory at home?

    5. Have you ever felt homesick? What did you miss the most?

    6. Is your neighborhood the same today as it was when you were a child? In what ways is it different? In what ways is it the same?

    7. What makes a good neighborhood?

    8. Would you rather live in an apartment or a house? Why?

    9. Would you rather live in a city, a suburb, a small town, or the countryside? Why?

    10. Can you suggest some places to find interior design ideas? Where is a good place to buy furniture? Why?

    11. What would your dream residence be like? Can you describe it in detail?

    12. What modern appliances would your dream house have? Do you have—or want to have—a robot? Why?

    13. What are some advantages of an apartment compared to a house?

    14. What makes a house a home for you?


    For more on this topic, try Chapter 3: Home Sweet Home, featured in Compelling Conversations – Japan!


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  5. Homophones Can Confuse: A Minor Mistake in Miner Valley

    June 20, 2014 by Eric

    Why it is so important for English learners to tackle homophones in the classroom

    “For me the greatest beauty always lies in the greatest clarity.”

    ―Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), German writer

    English remains an often confusing and difficult language to learn (and teach!) for many reasons. For instance, the gap between a word’s spelling and its pronunciation often presents a challenge for English learners. Another source of confusion and many headaches remains the surprisingly large number of homonyms and homophones―different words with the same pronunciation. Just as computer speech software programs like Siri on the iPhone find it difficult to distinguish the number two from the preposition “to” from the word “too”, so do many listeners.

    A “good mistake” I made while recently traveling with friends in Northern California emphasized the confusing nature of homonyms. We were looking for a wine tasting tour in Sonoma and Napa Valley, a beautiful area that attracts many tourists. The driver wanted directions to a winery called “Miner Valley,” so the passenger asked Siri for directions. Siri, the impressive iPhone personal assistant, provided detailed driving directions to “Minor Valley” winery nearby. This “good mistake” cost us thirty minutes, but did emphasize the importance of context in understanding everyday conversations. Few native English speakers will misunderstand the noun “miner,” the hard working people who hunt for gold, silver or coal for a living, with the important adjective “minor,” which means small or unimportant in most situations. Yet town and winery names can still be confusing and colorful. Both “Miner Valley” and “Minor Valley” happened to be the names of two fine wineries in the area. (Do they whine about each other’s wine? I don’t know, but that pun came to mind.)

    Of course, English language learners make these sort of “good mistakes” all the time. While we might seldom confuse “by” the bank for “buy” the bank, it’s easy to confuse “realize” for “real lies.” Sometimes our students complain, or whine, about our how confusing English is for them to master. And if they “eat” their final syllables like “s” or “r,” even attentive listeners can find themselves confused too. Did the ESL student mean “mine,” “mines,” “mind,” or “miner?” To understand each other, we must, therefore, continue to emphasize the importance of word endings – even in advanced ESL and EFL classes – so listeners can better comprehend what our students want to say. If the context is unclear or vague, we might not know if the speaker is referring to a miner or minor problem. Many comedians, of course, delight in these situations, but homophones can haunt English students. English teachers and English tutors can turn these common good mistakes into teachable moments and practical lessons in speaking skills. We must first admit that English is a crazy language.

    If you’re interested in learning more about homophones, you might enjoy reading Wikipedia’s informative article on homophones or reviewing an impressive list of many confusing homophones/homonyms. I enjoyed reading both.

    How will you make homophones easier to handle?


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  6. What Three Tips Would You Share with Novice ESL / EFL Teachers?

    August 15, 2013 by Eric
    What three tips would offer new a ESL/EFL teacher?

    Hall Houston, author of Provoking Thought: Memory and Thought in ELT, posed this question to several prominent English language trainers and teachers last year. Sean Banville, Russell Stannard, Chia Suan Chong, Nik Peachey, Scott Thornbury, and myself replied. (Naturally, I feel grateful to be included with these far more notable and accomplished ELT educators.) Houston placed these practical, sometimes surprising, and often illuminating responses together in the back of his latest educational book The ELT Daily Journal: Learning to Teach ESL/EFL.

    Here are my three tips for novice English teachers working with English language learners.

    1. Create Classroom Rituals – Beginnings and endings matter. Establishing clear classroom expectations and class rituals increase student comfort, establish a professional atmosphere, and improve student learning. One of my favorite classroom rituals is asking a personal question on the daily attendance sheet that re-enforces the day’s lesson, checks off a bureaucratic necessity, allows individual student expression, and builds group cohesion and student curiosity. Adding a relevant pithy quotation at the bottom adds another layer of engagement.

    2. Encourage “Good Mistakes” – Since mistakes are both inevitable and part of the learning process, encourage students to take chances, stretch their English muscles, and make “good mistakes” in a safe, tolerant space. Good mistakes are common mistakes that we can learn from so we can go on to make new, different, and better “good mistakes”. Sometimes students allow the demon of perfectionism to paralyze them, and framing errors as “good mistakes” can reduce the fear and stigma around making errors so students can learn more by doing more.

    3. Deploy YouTube (or other video channels) – The easy access to thousands of authentic materials on YouTube and other online channels makes teaching English easier and more satisfying than ever. Instead of just playing a single video clip in class, you can have high intermediate and advanced students find their own videos for homework and summarize them for classmates. “Search and share” homework assignments encourage student curiosity, develop critical thinking skills, and require students to speak as they describe and evaluate videos for classmates.

    (You can find several such worksheets that I’ve created here.)

    The ELT Daily Journal provides over a dozen similar sets of responses in the appendix. Designed for new teachers, the simple format poses a question or provides a suggestion to stimulate writing about classroom experiences. Although I’ve taught for over two decades and seldom kept a formal teaching journal, I found it a quick, satisfying read that evoked some positive and a few awkward classroom experiences. Consequently, this book serves as a quick primer on best ESL/EFL teaching practices and core ELT principles.

    This thin, practical book has been added to my ESL/EFL library and professional development workshops. I look forward to sharing the book, especially with novice English teachers. I certainly wish I had read and used this journal when I taught my first English class so many moons ago. You might find it useful too.

    We all have classroom experiences as students or teachers. What advice would you offer to new ESL/EFL teachers? Why?
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